Iraqi Oil Minister Thamir Ghadhban says Exxon Mobil staff pull-out is 'unacceptable and unjustified'

Mr Ghadhban asked for the US oil company to send its staff back to work

FILE - In this Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017 file photo, a worker operates valves in Nihran Bin Omar field north of Basra, Iraq. An Iraqi oil official says employees of energy giant Exxon Mobil have started evacuating an oil field in the southern province of Basra, amid rising tensions between the United States and Iran. The first group left two days ago and another batch left early Saturday May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani, File)
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Iraq's Oil Minister Thamir Ghadhban demanded that Exxon Mobil returns staff it pulled out  of an oilfield because of safety concerns last week.

Mr Ghadhban said the withdrawal of staff was "unacceptable and unjustified", and had been based on political reasons rather than security ones, a statement reported by Reuters said.

A source in Iraq told The National on Friday that Exxon had begun to pull out its foreign staff from West Qurna near Basra, but the company has not publicly confirmed the move.

About 60 staff were flown to Dubai, a senior Iraqi official and three other sources told Reuters on Saturday.

The chief of staff of Iraq's state-owned South Oil Company told Reuters the Exxon Mobil withdrawal was a temporary and precautionary measure and that the oilfield was running at full capacity.

Exxon Mobil has a contract to renovate and improve the southern oilfield on behalf of Iraq's South Oil Company. The company withdrew all of its foreign staff last week, days after the United States withdrew all non-essential staff from the US embassy and said it could no longer provide consular services to US citizens in the country.

The State Department said the withdrawal from its embassy in Baghdad and consulate in Erbil was due to an increased threat from Iran-backed Shiite militias.

In a statement, the US company said it "has programmes and measures in place to provide security to protect its people, operations and facilities", but it declined to directly respond when contacted because "as a matter of practice, we don’t share specifics related to operational staffing at our facilities".

Oilfields in the south account for almost 90 per cent of Iraq's production, but are located on the border with Iran, which the United States says is arming militias who have targeted US citizens.

The measures come after a week of escalating rhetoric between the United States and Iran, raising fears of a new conflict in the Middle East.

Iranian-backed Houthi drones attacked Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure on Tuesday last week, leading to retaliatory strikes in Houthi-held Sanaa in Yemen.

Four tankers off the UAE's coast were also sabotaged, but the culprit of the attack has not yet been disclosed.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia announced an emergency summit over the tanker attacks.